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The Summer Book is a Scandinavian classic. It’s never been out of print since it was first published in 1972, and I’m very ashamed to admit that I hadn’t heard of it until a friend gave me a copy for my birthday. From the blurb I hoped this would be a book to savour and kept it for my honeymoon to read in the quiet sea and lakeside towns of New Zealand’s South Island. This, as it turns out, may have been one of the best ways to read this sweet and meditative summer tale; however, it’s also the kind of book I will pick up again for comfort reading when things aren’t going so great.
The story is simple. Following the death of her mother, six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother pass a summer on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. It is told through a series of vignettes—memories gathered to take back to the mainland and think over through the winter. Sophia spends her first night camping in a tent by herself after hearing Grandmother’s stories of being a Scout leader as a young woman. Sophia and Grandmother visit a neighbouring island to inspect the new house built there and are surprised by the owners. Sophia’s calls up a terrible storm. There’s a story about a dressing gown and another about a giant plastic sausage. They’re funny little anecdotes that could belong to any family, but are also deeply personal and nuanced—the kind told again and again over Christmas lunches and birthday teas.
Sophia and Grandmother enjoy a special relationship. They are both outsiders, ‘too old and too young to come to the party.’ Their age gives them freedom. While Papa works, they spend their days exploring the island, collecting driftwood, swimming, carving animals for the magic forest and soaking up the sun. Being outsiders, they view the world askance—Sophia is looking toward her life and the world appears fresh and strange, while Grandmother is looking back, and knows it all too well. Their conversations, with their mix of innocence and wisdom have a strange, enchanting logic. For example, here Sophia asks Grandmother about Heaven:
‘Are there ants in Heaven?’ Sophia asked.
‘No,’ said Grandmother, and lay down carefully on her back. She propped her hat on her nose and tried to sneak a little sleep. Some kind of farm machinery was running in the distance. If you turned it off—which was easy to do—and listened only to the insects, you could hear thousands of millions of them, and they filled the whole world with rising and falling waves of ecstasy and summer. Sophia picked some flowers and held them in her hand until they got warm and unpleasant; then she put them down on her grandmother and asked how God could keep track of all the people who prayed at the same time.
‘He’s very, very smart,’ Grandmother mumbled sleepily under her hat.
‘Answer really,’ Sophia said. ‘How does he have time?’
‘He has secretaries…’
‘But how does He manage to do what you pray for if He doesn’t get time to talk to the secretary before it’s too late?’
Grandmother pretended to be asleep, but she knew she wasn’t fooling anyone, and so finally she said that He’d made it so nothing bad could happen between the moment you prayed and the moment He found out what you prayed for. And then Sophia wanted to know what happened if you prayed while you were falling out of a tree and you were halfway down.
‘Aha,’ said Grandmother, perking up. ‘In that case He makes you catch on a limb.’
‘That’s smart,’ Sophia admitted. ‘Now you get to ask. But it has to be about Heaven.’
‘Do you think all the angels wear dresses, so no one can tell what kind they are?’
‘What a dumb question! You know they all wear dresses. But listen carefully; if one of them wants to know for sure what kind the other is, he just flies under him and looks to see if he’s wearing pants.’
‘I see,’ Grandmother said. ‘That’s good to know.’
However, Jansson’s gentle humour is offset by the occasional sad note. Sophia and Grandmother’s relationship only takes them so far and in many ways, each is very much alone. For all her sly wit and I’m-too-old-to-care attitude, Grandmother’s health is failing and she doesn’t always have the patience or the energy to look after Sophia, though she loves her dearly. Some days it is difficult for her to get out of bed. Sophia, in turn, is left to face many of her greatest fears alone.
Summer, too, is not the bright, warm season we enjoy here in Australia, and the island (though magical in Sophia’s eyes) is also a wild and, at times, frightening place. As well as the wildflowers, swimming holes and the clear night sky, there are sharp rocks and snow and marshes and squalls. It’s a Scandinavian summer in grey and white and silver with occasional bursts of vibrant colour.
The Summer Book is a rare little treasure, perfect for those times when you really need something to make you smile. Sophia and Grandmother’s adventures, being at once personal and universal, offer the reader a way back to childhood summers that seem to stretch for years, and where fortifying sandcastles against the rising tide and collecting cockle shells are tasks of grave importance.
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